On the afternoon of January 19, 1937 a glistening aircraft flew, engine roaring, over Newark airport in the suburbs of New York. Reflecting the sun’s rays on its smooth fuselage, it descended at full throttle toward the tarmac to pass between two masts that served as a control gate.
The many applauding onlookers in the grandstand jumped to their feet, their shouts drowning the fading hum of the engine. Hats went up, while the radio commentators, shouting one over another into their microphones, tried to reach the listeners over the general uproar: “Howard Hughes has established a new speed record! A distance of 2,490 miles from Los Angeles covered in just 7 hours, 28 minutes and 25 seconds! Unbelievable! The fastest man in the world...”
Professor Kurt Tank of the audience was watching amazed the landing racing aircraft owned by American eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Although his H-1 was propelled by a radial engine and did not feature a streamlined bullet-like body, the great engine power aided by other aerodynamic features made it one of the fastest aircraft on earth. Tank’s attention was also attracted by the wide wheel track, allowing safer landing. The German aircraft designer, who was then looking for an inspiration to create his own incredible machine, reached an enlightenment. The entire audience only saw one of the many experimental toys for breaking records, but Kurt Tank was the only individual in this crowd who saw the future creation of his life in his imagination – the Focke Wulf FW 190 fighter aircraft – a terrible weapon which would change the status quo in aircraft engineering. This vision kept haunting him for the next several years, equipping him with a great persistence and the patience of a man who is certain of the potential of his design.
The new German fighter appearing in the second half of 1941 – the FW 190 – became another obstacle in the Allies’ advance towards victory. This unusually agile, fast and heavily armed aircraft was from the very beginning the curse of the RAF and the pride of the Luftwaffe. The bloody fights to exhaustion saw the FW 190 defeated not because of its inferior quality but a great enemy advantage in number. Therefore, it still is a surprising fact today that two years earlier one of the best WW2 fighters should have been unwanted. It was partly due to the Germans already having their “wonderful weapon” in the form of the Messerschmitt Bf 109, and offering the Luftwaffe one more fighter – which, on top of that, existed only on paper – seemed a crazy idea. Not a soul in 1941, and even more so before the war, suspected that this fighter, modeled on an American racing design, would soon become the symbol of German power...
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The FW 190 saw the light of day thanks to the great tenacity and Herculean toil of a single man – professor Kurt Tank. This charismatic, natural-born leader gathered a team of talented engineers around him. Among his helpers was an equally skilled engineer, Rudolf Blaser, who worked with him on a single-engined high-wing monoplane, the FW 159 fighter, and the twin-engined FW 187 Falke. Both constructions were propelled by Junkers Jumo inline engines but proved inferior to Willi Messerschmitt’s designs.
When the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter began to equip the Luftwaffe, it was announced a “wonder of technology”. The unquestionable success was undoubtedly owed to the Daimler Benz inline engine, which allowed the Bf 109 to receive a very streamlined body and attain higher speeds. It was in accordance with the constructional trends of the period, with preference for inline engines, which offered less drag and, as a result, attaining higher speeds. Speed was considered the most important quality of a thoroughbred fighter.
The radial engine was not the choice in most countries for, along with greater power, it gave greater aerodynamic drag. It was commonly considered an anachronism from the times of WW1 which was only suitable for the obsolete biplane and which on top of that greatly hampered visibility during take-off and landing. The German engineers were not the only ones who believed that a metal low-wing monoplane should be fitted with an inline engine. Great Britain’s engineers conceived the fast Supermarine Spitfire and agile Hawker Hurricane – both fitted with Rolls-Royce Merlin inline motors. The French also preferred this type of power plant for their Morane Saulnier 406 fighter, fitting it with a Hispano Suiza and, for further improvement of the aircraft’s aerodynamics, they used a glycol cooler partly embedded into the fuselage. Also in Soviet Russia work on new aircraft generally assumed the use of inline engines, which resulted in such aircraft as the Yak-1, MiG-1 or LaGG-3.